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Susan Straight: One Home Town, Many Voices

Dec 5, 2012
Originally published on December 5, 2012 9:09 am

Think of all the great writers who have made their hometowns literary history — William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Wolfe, to name a few. Now, Susan Straight is getting the same praise for her portrayal of Riverside, Calif. It's a small town at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains, an hour east of Los Angeles.

Read any of Straight's 10 books, and you hear tales of a tight-knight black community in a working-class neighborhood, with voices that sound lively and real. Then you meet Straight, and do a double take: she is petite and blond. And as she told Kirkus Reviews at last year's Austin Book Festival, she sounds the way she sounds because of where she calls home:

"I still live in the same place I've lived all my life. And even though I look like this, most of the characters [in my books] are black or mixed race, because that's the community I live in."

Many of the stories from Straight's neighbors and friends end up woven through her books, although it can take a while for them to get there. A riveting story, first told by an elderly family friend decades ago, finally made its way into Between Heaven and Here, her latest novel in a trilogy that spans three centuries.

Straight says this is the tale he told her, about almost starving when he was a small child growing up near a Florida turpentine forest:

"I was so hungry, and I was so angry about it, that one day, I knew where there was a pig in the woods. And I got a hammer and I walked three miles to where that pig was, and I killed it with my hammer. And I dragged it back home, and put it in the yard, and I told my mother, and I said 'I'm tired of being hungry. I want you to cook me some meat.' "

Straight says she tells these Riverside stories so that the true personal histories of ordinary people can live on. When Straight teaches creative writing students at the University of California, Riverside, she always gives them this advice:

"The best thing I could say is, you do have to be a really good listener. If I go to a family reunion and there's 400 people there, everybody comes up to tell me their story, right? And I think when you're a good listener, then you can imagine how someone's talking — dialogue is your key friend, is it not?"

Listening well has paid off: Straight's work has been praised by The Washington Post, The New York Times, Kirkus and fellow writers such as Walter Mosley for realistic dialogue that allows her characters to speak for themselves. She is successful enough that she could live somewhere bigger or, as others might put it, better — but she won't. Riverside is her home.

There are two portraits in Straight's house — one is of Flannery O'Connor, who produced revered classics from her home in Milledgeville, Ga. The other is of Eudora Welty, who did the same from her permanent perch in Jackson, Miss.

"And I think how amazing it was that she chronicled her small town of Jackson with that kind of love and she stayed there. And I think, well, if it's OK for them, it's all right for me." It has been so far — and there are plenty of Riverside stories yet to share.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Think of those great writers who have made their hometowns' literary history: William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Wolfe. Well, now, Susan Straight is getting praise for her portrayal of Riverside, California. It's a small city in the high desert an hour east of Los Angles, right at the foothills of the rugged San Bernardino Mountains. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited the author in the place that is both her home and inspiration.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Read any of Susan Straight's 10 books, and you hear tales of a tight-knit black community in a working-class neighborhood, with voices that sound lively and real. Then you meet Straight, and do a double take: She's petite and blond. When she was interviewed at last year's Texas Book Festival, she said she sounds the way she sounds because of where she calls home.

SUSAN STRAIGHT: I still live in the same place I've lived all my life. And even though I look like this, most of the characters are black or mixed race, because that's the community that I live in.

BATES: Many residents, like Straight's former in-laws, fled oppressive conditions in the segregated South. Several of the stories Straight's neighbors and family handed down to her end up in her books, although it can take a while for them to get there. A riveting story an elderly family friend told her decades ago made its way into "Between Heaven and Here," her latest novel in a trilogy that spans three centuries.

STRAIGHT: Mr. Gainer, we're going to drive by his house.

BATES: As she gives a tour of Riverside, Straight says this is what Lewis Gainer told her about almost starving when he was a small child living in rural Florida with his widowed mother.

STRAIGHT: I was so hungry, and I was so angry about it, that one day, I knew where there was a pig in the woods. And I got a hammer and I walked three miles to where that pig was, and I killed it with my hammer. And I dragged it back home, and put it in the yard, and I told my mother, I'm tired of being hungry. I want you to cook me some meat.

BATES: Susan Straight says she tells these Riverside stories so true personal histories of ordinary people live on. An audience at a TEDx lecture heard how she translated the pig tale into her latest book.

STRAIGHT: I wrote a story about a man who is orphaned during the 1927 Mississippi River flood in Louisiana, and he's on the banks of levee, and he's starving. And there are other people starving, too. And he's so desperate, he's seven years old, that he finds a pig that's been abandoned. He kills it with a hammer, and he drags it back.

BATES: Straight teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. She tells students in one class she got the pig story by using a critical skill all writers need.

STRAIGHT: The best thing I could say is you do have to be a really good listener. If I go to a family reunion and there's 400 people there, everybody comes up and tells me their stories, right? And I think that when you're a good listener and you can imagine how someone's talking, dialogue is your key friend, is it not?

BATES: Listening well has paid off: Susan Straight's work has been praised by The Washington Post, The New York Times, Kirkus and fellow writers such as Walter Mosley. They say she creates dialogue that allows her characters to speak for themselves. She is successful enough that she could live somewhere bigger or - as others might put it - better, but she won't.

STRAIGHT: And this is 12th Street.

BATES: She loves every inch of Riverside, and points out places of personal significance as she drives around.

STRAIGHT: My father-in-law used to own a little slice of property over there.

BATES: So she's saying put. As a reminder, there are two portraits in Straight's house: one is of Flannery O'Connor, who produced revered classics from her home in Milledgeville, Georgia. The other is of Eudora Welty, who did the same from her permanent perch in Jackson, Mississippi. Straight says when she feels guilty about not wanting to leave home, she remembers Welty's fine portrait of a formal Southern wedding with all its hidden undercurrents.

STRAIGHT: And I think how amazing it was that she chronicled her small town of Jackson with that kind of love, and she stayed there. And I think, well, if it's OK for them, it's all right for me.

BATES: It has been so far, and there are plenty of Riverside stories yet to share. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.